By Swati Saxena:
In 2016, I decided to apply to the India Fellow programme and got through. As part of the fellowship, I was placed with an organisation named Chaitanya in Madhya Pradesh, which works to empower women by bringing about financial inclusion through self-help groups. The work took me deep into rural Madhya Pradesh, requiring me to interact with and encourage local women to begin saving a little money every month, that they can use on rainy days. It was one such day in a village in South Madhya Pradesh, while my colleague and I were passing through the half-broken muddy roads on a bike, that something strange happened.
“Ladki, ladki (It’s a girl!)” an excited four-year-old screamed, “Wo dekh, scooter pe ladki (Look, there, on the scooter!),” looking back and forth at his friends and me, in absolute amazement. I found his surprise strangely disturbing. We knew that the gender gap in rural Madhya Pradesh was far wider than in the urban setups that we came from. We had in fact, experienced much reluctance in the behaviour of women in last few days, when it came to convincing them to begin saving. Not just that; they were even reluctant to speak, to get out of their homes, to try anything new or to take the ghoonghat off their heads. But something about this boy’s raw surprise struck me as strange in an outlandish way.
I knew I couldn’t place the blame for the child’s attitude on him, or even his parents. After all, they wouldn’t have had the time to tell him that women don’t drive scooters, right? But I couldn’t help but wonder what shaped his attitude. Did he overhear men making fun of women doing it? Did he observe practices where women weren’t allowed to do certain things? Or was it just that he hadn’t seen something like this earlier, and it was just something new?
Another time, my colleague and I were talking to a group of women at one of the local women’s home, about the benefits of regular savings and how it could help them financially as well as socially. Suddenly, a 13-year-old boy barged in, looked sternly towards one of the women and said, “Koi zarurat nahi hai ye sab karne ki! (There’s no need to do any of this!)”. And the mother’s reaction was only to smile, and look down as if affirming.
It took me almost half a minute to try to make sense of what just happened. Turns out he was her son who had been eavesdropping all this while. Evidently, he was in the habit of making decisions for his mother, and she didn’t really have a say in anything. At that point, I had no option but to leave them to it. But numerous such instances later, I have realised that there is a need to come up with a solution for these things, and soon.
The main obstacle with respect to this is to figure out who’s really responsible for these acts of sexism. Do we blame the children, the family or the entire community? After all, the issues aren’t limited to rural India, we’ve all seen such things in urban cities as well. The logical conclusion, then, is that the fault lies in the system in entirety and requires immediate intervention.
That is not to say that nothing has been done at all. There have been several movies, books and other literature published to educate people about this. However, movies like ‘Pink’ and ‘Parched’ usually talk only to those who are already conscious, and they (we) in turn need to communicate to the ones (millions) who are still ignorant.
Our education system has failed us as well. For example, did you know gender and sex are not the same? I didn’t, until last week, when we had a session on gender equity in my organisation and were taught the difference.
It is only with bridging such gaps in knowledge that we can take larger strides towards changing attitudes. And I have come to realise that that is what my fellowship is about. Fellowships in India are building a community of socially conscious individuals who are directly engaging with these issues and attempting to tackle them at the source. Proof? After facing what I did, I have decided to enrol for an online emotional intelligence course, so I know how best to handle such situations in the future.
After all, it’s only through direct intervention that we can hope to bring the change we wish to see in society, right?